Nashvegas and Mammoth Cave

“I know that some of you don’t know who Vince Gill is, and that’s because you don’t listen to country music. And I know you don’t listen to country music because a lot of it is shit.” -Lewis Black

I just visited Nashville for the first time, and for better or worse, it wasn’t what I expected. For the record, I didn’t know that much about the city other than that it is the Mecca of country music, and that it would be the best staging point for a drive up to Mammoth Cave last weekend. And as far as the people go, I knew it would mostly be cowboys, southern girls, and people trying to break into the industry. That aside, I assumed it would be about like any other big city.

What I didn’t expect to see was the fucking shitshow that was Nashville’s Broadway Street every Friday and Saturday night. I stayed in downtown and couldn’t really avoid it. Every weekend, the street is packed with drunk southern frat boys and bachelorette parties. It reminded me a lot of NOLA’s Bourbon Street, but at least the party scene in New Orleans had some character and soul to it. This was just a carnival of drunk assholes. I see why they call it Nashvegas. It is Las Vegas for rednecks.

That out of the way, I’ll tell you what I liked about Nashville. The first thing was the Seigenthaler Bridge, a pedestrian walkway that crosses the Cumberland River right in front of the skyline. It has a great view of the riverfront and downtown buildings. I went up there at sundown on Friday to practice shooting lowlight.

Then there was the food. I do love me some good old southern home cooking, mostly because the primary ingredient in any good southern fried food is cholesterol. Give me some pulled pork and egg on a hot buttermilk biscuit, darlin, and I will sit at your counter and drink your coffee. And you don’t have to call me darlin, darlin.

Jack’s on Broadway is a well respected barbecue restaurant with some outstanding Texas Brisket. I went there on Friday night right in the middle of all the Nashvegas action. The line looked like it would be an hour, and I almost didn’t go in. Then I changed my mind last minute and chose to wait it out, which turned out to be the right decision. The pork shoulder was solid, the St. Louis ribs were even better, and the brisket was a fucking home run. It was the only kind I’ve had where the burnt edge tasted like roasted marshmallows. Imagine that kind of sweet flavor blending into tender, smoked beef. Go there and eat it, people, it’s awesome.

On 3rd Avenue just around the corner from Jack’s is the Johnny Cash Museum. Don’t those three words together sound wonderful? I’ve honestly never liked mainstream country, but to be fair, Nashville does pay its respects to the pioneers and veterans of the industry.

The museum was full of memorabilia from every phase of Johnny Cash’s life – from his childhood in the cotton fields of Arkansas to his Folsom and San Quentin concerts, to his years as a Highwayman, and then his epitaph on American IV. It was a haunting place, and I was genuinely humbled to walk amongst the artifacts of the greatest country singer who ever lived.

As a final thought, the very last exhibit showcased the video for Hurt on the TV screens. It had a montage of clips taken throughout his life, and shots of him singing his words of farewell as an old man. Below the screens was the now empty red chair where he once sat, pouring wine before a grand feast. Leave it to a mortal like Johnny Cash to immortalize an already great song.

Mammoth Cave National Park

I rented a car early the next morning and drove 90 miles north to Mammoth Cave, the largest known cave system in the world. To date, there are more than 365 charted miles of its tunnel system, though surveyors estimate that hundreds more still exist. An elaborate network of subterranean streams and rivers exist deep within the cave, and all eventually flow outside to join the Green River.

The park offers tours of the passages near the welcome center, which at the most go about 300 feet underground. I signed up for two of them, Domes and Dripstones in the morning and Cleveland Avenue in the afternoon. Each would take about two hours.

After a brief orientation from the ranger, 200 of us boarded school buses and left for the entrance to Domes and Dripstones. The entrance was closed off by an iron door that the ranger unlocked and opened. We walked single file down a long stairway of steel that wound around the bends of the descending tunnel. The air was cool and damp with groundwater runoff.

We finally reached the bottom and walked into a much larger chamber where the ranger stopped us and spent a few minutes telling us the history of the cave. For the next hour, we went onward through one big chamber after another, but the ground was mostly level. It was a well maintained passage that should be accessible by people at most fitness levels. This wasn’t like spelunking, where you actually are scrambling over boulders and rappelling down ledges. (If you are into that, they do offer a guided trip of 5.5hrs through a gnarlier passage of the cave.)

After a couple hours, we reached the far terminus of the passage at a chamber called Frozen Niagra. It is marked by a thin column of water flowing from a sinkhole above the ceiling, which over time has created numerous stalactites and flowstone formations on the walls. You can descend about 40 feet to the bottom of the chamber. When I did, it looked like it was part of an alien hive.

The entrance to Cleveland Avenue felt like the stairway to a fallout bunker. When we got to the bottom, 50 of us walked along a long, oval shaped river-cut passageway for what ended up being two and a half hours. Unlike Domes, Cleveland Avenue was larger, straighter and more level – evidence of what was once a slow moving subterranean river. I felt like I was walking through a lunar tunnel.

I mostly stayed in the back of the group to get pictures of the cavern rooms. One of the rangers with us told me about how the park was first bought from farmers in the area by the park service several generations ago. When he looked up his genealogy, it turned out that his own ancestors were among the people to sell their land. I thought it was really cool that the park where this guy works is part of his own lineage.

We got back to the stairs going up to the entrance and were the last ones out. He told me I should get a picture of the steps. I agreed, and it turned out to be my favorite picture of the trip.

I turned and passed through the doorway, and walked into the blinding white light of the afternoon.

About Dan Hagen

I’m a guy from Chicago who travels as often as possible. It is my lifelong goal to see the world by train, foot, bicycle, and raft. I like open country roads, urban nightlife, good cuisine, local beer, alpine mountains, wild rivers, and lots of other badass shit. And I will write about it as often as I can.